The unmistakable voice of Memphis Wrestling, Lance Russell, is being honoured with the Announcer’s Award at the upcoming Cauliflower Alley Club’s 51st Reunion, April 11-13 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Lance Russell in 2009. Photo by Christine Coons.

One of the greatest wrestling announcers of all time with his earnest style and smooth delivery, Russell was integral to Memphis Wrestling, one of the most influential and innovative territories in the country throughout the ’70s and ’80s with the likes of Jerry Lawler, The Fabulous Ones, Andy Kaufman, and countless names who have left their mark on the business.

In celebration of his Announcer’s Award and milestone 90th birthday on March 18, SLAM! Wrestling chatted at length with Russell about his nearly four decades calling wild matches and cutting trailblazing promos in Memphis.

Below is part one of our interview, in which Russell discusses being a central figure in one of the hottest territories in the country, his absence from the 2011 documentary Memphis Heat, and the art of creating characters.

Stay tuned to SLAM! Wrestling for part two, as Russell delves into the infamous Empty Arena Match and Tupelo Concession Stand Brawl, credibility, and Memphis’ indelible impact on the history of professional wrestling.

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SLAM! Wrestling: First off, congratulations on being presented with the prestigious Announcer’s Award at the upcoming CAC Reunion. Wrestling wasn’t the first sport you did announcing for, right?

Lance Russell: That’s right. Prior to doing wrestling I did football, baseball, basketball, golden gloves boxing, and I started doing wrestling when I had all that stuff behind me. One of the promoters asked me, well do you want to come in and sit with us while we’re setting up today’s show and I said no, Lord no, at first.

But then, I took my partner Dave (Brown) off of doing bingo and made a heck of a wrestling announcer out of him. So there I was at the table working with Dave and talking about next Monday night’s match, and I just I did things the way they just seemed like to me needed an explanation. But that’s the way I did all of the sports.

I found out through boxing for instance, if you try to follow every punch from both fighters then you’re never going to get the explanation done because it’s all too fast, so what I had to do was to say, I had ‘A’ boxing ‘B’, ‘A’ throws a left hook and ‘B’ rolls with it and came back with another left hook himself. So you just put the two of them together and that way you can do it a lot faster than saying ‘A’ did this and then ‘B’ did that. And I think that’s kind of the way it just struck my mind at the time.

Lance Russell and Jerry Lawler at an early birthday party for Russell. Photo by Mark James.

SLAM! Wrestling: You delivered some great euphemisms when calling matches, like “Sam Hill” and “Don’t start with the smart stuff.” Where did those come from?

Lance Russell: My older brother or mother or father, or just people I hung out with. My grandfather had a whole lot of little choice ones, and you don’t even realize you’ve taken them on yourself until you get a situation that pops up like that and out it comes. It’s interesting that you mention that, because I’ve had one or two but not a lot of people who mention the expressions. And I’m kind of glad whenever I hear it because it’s not something I planned or anything like that, but rather it’s just as much a part of life as taking a big deep breath, something in that nature.

And hey, everybody’s got their own style, but one of the interesting things is I finally got to work with Gordon Solie when we both were with Turner Broadcasting. Gordon and I had been friends for a good long time and Gordon was working down in Tampa, but of course did Atlanta and did the first thing on TBS when they were broadcasting wrestling. It was the first cross-country thing, so whenever we had wrestlers that were finishing up Memphis and heading down to Florida to wrestle for a spell down there, Gordon would call me up and say, “Hey, I’ve got a match coming up here, the Welch boys are coming down and I wonder if you could get me an interview.”

So I’d do an interview with them and send it down to him and it was the next best thing to Gordon doing them himself, because he told me the particular things he wanted to put over, and reverse it and I did the same thing with Gordon where I’d have guys coming out of Florida coming up to Memphis. And then Gordon would do it for you, and so we became friends that way and work buddies.

SLAM! Wrestling: How was it working with Gordon Solie?

Lance Russell and Dave Brown. Courtesy Crowbar Press.

Lance Russell: I always admired his work tremendously. It was a little different style than mine but still in all we had some similarities. With Turner Broadcasting, I was already working there and Gordon had done some work, so they brought him on board and we started working together. They had us do a lot of radio things together and it was surprising how it really picked up an audience with the both of us working together. Gordon was a great guy to work with, everybody was different, and today its all the same thing.

Jim Ross was already with Turner when I joined them, and then our styles were so completely different that it was good. I mean, Jim had a real fireball where he’d build up the smoke, whereas I was more content to let it build itself up until it broke loose and automatically you had the heat going on there with both guys.

Sometimes, you get really excited when a particular play in football is breaking loose, and a guy gets around and darts down for the goal line, what’s to say if you got something as exciting as that, and I guess that’s the way it came out with me. And Dave Brown picked that up after working with me. Dave and I worked for 27 years together as a matter of fact, so Dave couldn’t help but pick up some of my stuff and I couldn’t help but pick up some of Dave’s.

SLAM! Wrestling: In Memphis, did you see yourself as a central figure the way Gordon Solie was in Florida, Georgia, and Continental Championship Wrestling?

Lance Russell: The honest truth, is no, I didn’t really realize until it was over. And in this day and age, it’s astounding how much interest people have in the legend of Memphis wrestling. I never intended on doing a career after a career. I mean really, I figured I had retired, and my wife said, “When are you going to stop doing all of this?” And I’d say, “Well yeah, I think maybe I’ll be over with it this year, and I’ll call it quits,” and she’d say, “You’ve retired now five different times.” She’d ask, “I want to know when you’re going to retire and when we’re going to go have fun (laughs).”

SLAM! Wrestling: Did your late wife Audrey travel with you?

Lance Russell: When you’ve lived with and loved somebody for 67 years as I did with my wife, Audrey… fortunately when the kids were grown she was able to travel with me. And we had a great time together and the interesting thing is, Gordon and his wife Smokey, the four of us would travel to different places and we would have a ball going out together because Gordon was so big nationwide.

I’d always joke with Gordon, like we would be in a place where there were some matches coming up so we would take time to go out in Phoenix, Arizona, and we were out there to do several matches in a little tournament thing. And we would go into one of the attractions to eat in there and somebody behind the counter would say, “Wow, I know that voice. Hey Lance, what are you doing out of Tennessee and coming all the way out here?” And they wouldn’t make any comments about Gordon and I’d get back over to the table and I’d say, “I’m so sorry about that Gordon, I can’t imagine how they would overlook that you were right there with me (laughs).” I’d just get him like that and we’d have fun doing that.

SLAM! Wrestling: Did Audrey enjoy your celebrity status?

Lance Russell: Did she enjoy it? Well, she did when we went out to eat and couldn’t get a decent table or had to wait for an extra 45 minutes, then somebody would recognize me and say, “Hey Lance, I got one over here.” And she loved it (laughs).

She didn’t like it so much when they would come up to me and say, “Hey, can I get an autograph?” while we were dining out. I’d say, “Well, could we do it in a little bit when we’re through eating here?” But you can’t blame them, they wanted attention right then so they can have their moment talking with you.

SLAM! Wrestling: You still generously give your time to the fans at wrestling conventions and Q & As.

Lance Russell: Well, these legend Q & A deals, I never even heard of them until the first one in Philadelphia when they called me up about coming out and I said, “What do you want me to do, what kind of matches?” And they said, “Oh, well, we may have some matches but you’re just there to talk to the people and sign autographs.” And that was my first experience with it, and then it got to be very big.

And particularly I noticed in Memphis, we were just a little hometown wrestling thing, and all the guys like Turner and up East despised us because people talked so much about Memphis, because it was so many different things.

They’d say, “You guys are laughing so much I don’t know how you have any time to wrestle.” Or they’d say, “That’s stupid, that doesn’t have any place in wrestling.” “Well, I think you’re wrong,” I’d say in return, I think if something comes up that’s funny — and we had plenty of stuff that was funny — and I’ll agree with you that it can be overdone.

And we’d get some wrestlers that we had to sit down every now and then, because they wanted to do nothin’ but comedy. But it was a contrast in the different styles and people say, well what made Memphis so different? We were different because we did different things, we didn’t have this rigid setting in Memphis.

SLAM! Wrestling: Why are you and Dave Brown not in the 2011 documentary Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’?

Lance Russell: I tell you, that was really a strange situation because we got a call from the guy who was doing the film and he said, “Hey, we’re doing this thing on Memphis and it wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t have you and Dave Brown on there, would you come on?” And I said, “Okay, what’s the pay and how long to I have to work?” and so on. And he said, “Ah well, we’re not in a position to pay, we’re having a hard time just raising the money to make it.” And I said, “Well, I understand that, not my problem.” And if it was something for charity or something like that it would be a different thing. And frankly I just got tired of doing freebies.

So I called Dave up and said, “Did you talk to them?” And I said, “I’m not going to ask you what your answer was on the thing, I’m just going to tell you what my answer was. I’m tired of doing all this stuff for nothin’, so I’m not doin’ it.” And I said, “I just wanted you to know and I wanted you to know why,” and Dave said, “Man, I feel the same way and I felt like telling people all that.” So Dave and I did not do it. But they used all of our old footage in there.

So when they came down and had this big blowout at the Colonial Theatre or something in Memphis to premiere it, Jerry Jarrett, who was the guy who did all the promotion and all for it, he came out and made the introduction for me and I was going to bring Dave out. And then we were going to bring out (Jerry) Lawler and (Bill) Dundee and the different guys who were stars and in the film. But when Jerry Jarrett got out there he said, “You know, it dawned on me one day” — and this is why Jarrett did so well, because he was smart — suddenly realized that we got all the pictures in the newspaper about the wrestlers that were going to be here, but we didn’t have any pictures of Lance or Dave. And he said, “When I looked at the situation I got thinking, jeez Lance is on that television, Memphis Wrestling, more than anybody else, even including Lawler!”

Bruno Sammartino, Gordon Solie and Sir Oliver Humperdink. Photo courtesy Sir Oliver Humperdink.

And he said to everybody in the place, “It’s kind of stupid not to include of one of the biggest stars of Memphis Wrestling.” And I never really thought about it until he said that and made that comment on stage that night. Then he introduced us and of course I came on, he really put me over and I came on like a million dollars and introduced Dave. And the same thing was true with Dave, but I never thought about it before, hardly. That’s true. But I did a lot of other stuff. I did Memphis football, I was the colour man on that and a lot of other stuff, and so I had some attention, but it wasn’t like wrestling where Dave and I were a big part of the show, so to speak.

SLAM! Wrestling: As a wrestling announcer, did you see yourself as an artist?

Lance Russell: Well, no, it’s interesting you would say that. But no, I’ve never really thought of it that way. I’ve never seen myself as an artist. One of the things, and Dave Brown and I have talked about this, Dave is an entirely different kind of a person than I am. And that’s good because whatever was different made it work better, and I was happy to see that it all worked as beautifully as it did. I don’t know if Dave and I were great, but people did like us.

SLAM! Wrestling: In addition to being your partner on Memphis Wrestling, Dave Brown did the weather for the TV station.

Lance Russell: Yeah, and he was the weatherman in Memphis. Dave was just recognized as the most likeable and recognizable and appreciated performer on all of the six o’clock and 10 o’clock news things in Memphis. They’d do these polls to see who the people liked the most and Dave constantly won it.And Dave knows this, it wasn’t because of the weather, it was because of the wrestling that made him a star. And then he became the number one weather guy because he was good at what he did and he worked hard at it, and he deserved that kind of recognition.

We really and truly just never thought a lot about our popularity until the first one of these Q & A things I ever went to, and my Lord, I saw people from all over the country.

The story I’ll never forget is I went to do my first shows when I was with Turner in Boston and I was at the big coliseum and I had watched basketball played in Boston for a number of years and my mouth was just wide open. I got in there early with the audio guy, and we were setting up the equipment so we had the best viewing for doing what we were doing. And I sat in there with my mouth open, and here’s this thing I’ve seen on television so many times and now I’m sitting up there. The all of a sudden I heard this, “Hey Lance!” and I thought, “Holy mackerel, what is this?” And I looked and there was this group of about six or eight young people, teenagers, 20 year olds, they were standing down by the floorside and they were hollerin’. And I said, “Hey, come on up, I want to find out who’s from Mississippi.” And they said nobody. And I said, “I know somebody’s gotta by ’cause you were hollerin’ my name and our television show didn’t get to Boston.” And they said, “Oh, we’re tape traders!” And I had never heard of that before, and how much people watched it, trading it all over the country for different tapes that they loved. And Memphis was one of the one of the territories they got the most.

Sonny “Roughhouse” Fargo tickles Lance Russell at ringside. Courtesy Chris Swisher,

SLAM! Wrestling: Fans all over the country were fascinated by the artistry of Memphis Wrestling and cartoonish characters like Kamala, Lord Humongous and The Lone Ranger.

Lance Russell: Well, I’ll tell ya right off the bat that the artist was Jerry Lawler who came up with the characters. I remember Jerry wanted to do that first introductory film about Kamala in the woods, peeking out through the trees, and it was a great way to put him over that way. Jerry was the one behind all those characters.

So I take my hat off to the amazing talent that Lawler was. And he was just so good in the ring. Jackie Fargo taught him everything he knows, and he knows plenty. I worked in television all of my life virtually and this guy comes along and inside of three months time, I was saying, “I got to watch myself because this guy is likely to take my job, he’s so good.”

Lawler and I have been personal friends since he was 15 years old. He was in high school and he was just starting into his wrestling deal and I’d let him use me to make fun of and that was Lawler’s sense of humour early on, was to be a smart aleck. But his sense of humour really got him over big time, particularly with the younger people. And so I learned the characters of who they were and I’d always laugh and think about the first time he came out, I can’t remember his name — my 90-year-old brain — he was in a coffin and stood it up in the TV station, just off the edge of the TV set where Dave and I sat beside the ring and did the show. And when we were sitting there and done half the show or 45 minutes of it, all of a sudden there’s this noise coming out of the coffin and both Dave and I jumped and that’s when he had the monster inside. (laughs) And that was so great and funny on TV, and that was Lawler’s creativity that put all of those characters over. He was great with that but he did ’em all, and most of that crazy stuff fans remember came right out of Jerry’s head.